August 27th, 2010
08:55 AM ET

In the shadow of the levees

When Sonya Hill opens the door of her rebuilt shotgun house in the Lower 9th Ward she faces a reminder of the devastation Katrina brought. Directly across from her house is the spot where the levee broke five years ago.

It has since been rebuilt and sits higher than before the storm. It is an impressive wall of gray concrete meant to offer protection from future storms, but for Sonya Hill it is a reminder of everything that can go wrong.

“Looking at that wall, I’m thinking what if it breaks again? What if it breaks right in front of my door and I’m inside with my kids? I don’t feel safe back here if a hurricane comes through,” she says.

When Katrina hit she was living in a different part of the 9th Ward and then moved to Houston, Texas. She says affordable housing is scarce in New Orleans and staying with her aunt is her only option.

“I didn’t think I’d come back,” she says. “Then I got homesick and came home and now I’m back here, in front of the wall.”

Learn more about how the levees work

Across town in the Lakeview neighborhood, Roy Arrigo’s rebuilt home backs up to the floodwall on the 17th Street Canal. A few houses up the block is where that floodwall gave way during the storm. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has patched the breech, but the section behind Arrigo’s house is the same concrete wall that stood as Katrina pounded the city.

“This is a fragile wall,” he says.

He has become a neighborhood advocate pushing for what he calls “accountability” at the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Five years ago we found out that we couldn’t trust what the Corps was saying about their work, we couldn’t trust their work, and since that time, no processes, no procedures have changed,” he says. “Nobody’s been fired, demoted, jailed, held accountable in any way.

“So we see the work and we’re told about all of the progress, but can we trust it? To be honest, I don’t think we can.”

In the Gentilly neighborhood, the house that Callie Brown shares with her sister Willean Brown sits across the street from the levee that holds back the London Avenue Canal. It gave way during Katrina and like the others has been rebuilt.

Callie says she is scared another storm will hit and the levees won’t hold. She hopes the efforts to rebuild the levees will prove effective should another major hurricane hit, but she remains skeptical.

“I have to give the government the benefit of the doubt that the wall’s going to hold. Well I try, but that don’t mean it’s going to work,” she says.

Her sister doesn’t worry about the levee. She puts her faith in a higher power.

“They can build the wall as high as they want to. God has the power. If he wants to tear down a building low or high … he can knock it down.”

“My faith makes me feel safe here,” she says. “You don’t have to be afraid of where you live. You have to be afraid of God.”

soundoff (166 Responses)
  1. K. Hurd

    In 1997 I lived in a town that was flooded. Many neighborhoods were completely devastated. I myself was left homeless and unemployed from this disaster. I didn't expect the government to come bail me out, I did what many of my other neighbors did – we rebuilt, using our own money and our own insurance policies. There was some government support, in the face of local governments purchasing homes to prevent people from rebuilding back into a low laying areas. My neighborhood is now a park. Where there were hundreds of houses, just RVs and campers. Sad as it is, I know that no one will suffer the same effects that me and my family did.

    Natural disasters have been a way of life since the dawn of time. Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Cyclones, Flooding, Monsoons, all examples. Nothing says that a government is required to help it's citizens in the face of a natural disaster. The government is there to provide infrastructure and protection – it is *not* there to provide housing, food, or anything else. Life isn't a free ride.

    Now saying that: I support helping those that were flooded. I support allowing those that are in safe areas to rebuild. I do *not* support the rebuilding efforts in flooding prone areas. We need to be logical about this, not passionate. If your house is below sea level, you should never have rebuilt. Find another area.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Awf Hand

    My local government's zoning department will not allow me to build in the floodplain. The irritating irony is that my tax dollars are used to rebuild your house in the floodplain.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Who Cares

    No sympathy here. You choose to live in an area with inherent flood possibilities, but then you yell for help when it floods, blame the government, and move right back into a new house. Stop blaming the government for your problems and either learn how to tread water or move.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Harrison

    There will be another hurricane and a bigger one. You cannot beat Mother Nature. This guy standing at least 10 feet below the water level needs to have his head examined.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. A N Apologist

    Don't live below sea-level. Don't build below sea-level. Don't visit below sea-level. A simple set of rules to follow in a complicated time.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Southern Fried Redneck

      Yeah, Duh.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Scott

    The City of New Orleans is great, has great food, and a great vibe – but that doesn't mean that it can be saved from Mother Nature. This is a city that lies 8 feet below sea level! It only exists because of the efforts of many to keep the Mississippi River from obliterating it. So in the aftermath of Katrina, and its inevitable effects, here's what the citizens of New Orleans should be saying: Thanks, America, for rebuilding the levees after Katrina! We know we live in a city 8 feet below sea level, but we love it, and we'd rather take our chances with this city 8 feet below sea level, than move to higher ground!! So again, thanks for making it possible for us to move back to a city that exists 8 feet below sea level!! Hey, if they don't want to express their appreciation, fine... but do us a favor – just don't say anything.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst''r

    What is needed is a country wide Redistribution System for flood water prone areas. As with the levee pictured what is needed is a pumping installation that pumps water out through several lines, i/2 the size of regular sewer lines approximately and that takes the water to other areas further away such as inland rivers and lakes or even other states if need be or another ocean region. Some years ago the border states of america was vying to get water from canada but that was an insane proposal because many of your states were flooding. it made no common sense at all that you would want to buy canadian water. just redistribute your own heavy water floor and level areas. theresa noelle younan younan marketing and management associates inc, int'l intst'r real press corps of engineers. it look like a silly joke when i read those news stories about buying canadian waters because america didn't have enough water for crops or to drink.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. josh

    Levees to compete the nature? What a joke! New orleans is a blood sucker. Rebuilding what? Millions,billions, or trillions are just feeding those that never want to work. People with the least education would know this NATURE.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Scott Trent

    Have yet to understand why anyone would build a city BELOW SEA LEVEL, BESIDE THE SEA. Thinking the French MUST have been involved...

    August 28, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Robert

    First, it was a tragic loss of life, and a real disaster.

    Second, the response of the US was not so great. We do better to disasters outside of our borders.

    Third, at some point the people who live there must take a share of personal responsibility. They live below sea level! Do you really think it is the responsibility of the government to build walls that hold back the OCEAN so that you can live BELOW sea level? How about you move to higher ground instead? If you were 10 feet above sea level instead of 10 feet below it....there would have been no great tragedy!

    All I keep seeing is......governments fault, core of engineers fault, governors fault, FEMAs fault, mayors fault......on and on.....people just want to blame someone else. I don't live in the desert because there is water problems. I don't live in the mountains of colorado because winter sucks there (my opinion), I don't live next to a big river that floods every few years, I don't live in death valley because it is so damned hot (and a I don't live in New Orleans because it is below sea level!

    August 28, 2010 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Southern Fried Redneck

      Big Belly Flop to you Robert. Well said.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. News1973

    Anyone who is stupid enough to live in a house that is below sea level must share some of the responsibility if things go bad.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Southern Fried Redneck

    Thats the Welfare mentality. Gimme,Gimme,Gimme. The govt owes me. The state owes me. I deserve to be taken care of even though I did little to earn it. Greed and corruption. Build me a nice new house so I can cry on the news. Manipulate the people who pay the most taxes.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  13. HugeRedFlags

    No, you can't trust it. You need a plan to move out of there. Not sure what it would be good for, but housing (or anything that has to do with people) doesn't appear to be it. Possibly crops...not sure. But, not a town.

    August 28, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst''r

    in addition to what i said in my second comment advising that this be done right away because though the situation will escape this summer season you won't get by next year except you stole my comment off the posting site. also the Redistribution System can be used in a way that creates recyclable energy but i'm not sure yet. It depends on the strength of the pumping power grid. Yes, you would need electricity to power the pumps to drain away water but if they're power is strong enought the moving water action can then power generation equipment which can then redirect hydro electric power. It's sort of an artificial niagara falls of smaller scale. I use this recyclable energy technology plan for my interstellar transportor system commission ITC that i created and designed. theresa noelle younan ymma-iii

    August 28, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. YounanMarketingAndManagementAssociatesInc, Int'l Intst''r

    Actually it's larger than a niagara falls if it's done nationwide on the various flood prone areas thus creating a massive country wide almost niagara falls hydro electric system because the area pumping drainage redistribution would link to other areas and be very effective in solving power needs. theresa noelle younan ymma-iii

    August 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
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